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Athens Refugee Legal Support Project: what is happening on the ground and how to donate


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The pilot of the Athens Refugee Legal Support Project has now run for 2 months now. We work out of a community centre in Athens with the support of ILPA and Garden Court Chambers.

Weekly reports from UK legal volunteers (solicitors, barristers, case workers) tell a similar story. The Greek asylum service is overburdened. Greek lawyers on the frontline are overstretched and the majority of refugees do not receive any advice or representation prior to receiving the initial decision on their asylum claim. If refused they can expect an excruciatingly long appeal process. To make matters worse, many reside in squats, unable to access accommodation from the Greek state. Nor can many access appropriate physical and mental health services.

This Refugee Week, we are raising further funds for the project with a short film and panel discussion at Garden Court Chambers (see details here; please join us!).  (If you can’t come, please donate here.) The money we raise go vitally to supporting interpreters (who are themselves refugees) and project coordinators.

We have pulled together short pieces from three volunteers who have recently returned from Athens. Their pieces tell a story about the obstacles faced by refugees and others in need of international protection in Greece.

Shu Shin Luh, Garden Court Chambers

Every morning before 6 a.m., the queue starts forming outside Katehaki, the Greek Asylum Services’ main office in Athens. This is the heart and soul of the Greek asylum system. It is also home to Greece’s main Dublin unit. Last year alone, the Greek Asylum Service made 4,886 requests for transfers to other EU member-states, the vast majority of which were family reunification cases. Germany has the lion share. Last year, Germany received 739 Dublin transfers, out of more than 3,500 requests. In February 2017 alone, 370 individuals were transferred and another 540 were transferred in March 2017.

This changed in April 2017 because of a (no longer) secret agreement between Germany and Greece to cap the number of people transferred to Germany under Dublin III to 70 per month. According to the German government this is because of the state’s lack of capacity to manage the numbers of refugees arriving under the Dublin III, thus requiring what the German Minister of Interior de Maizière described as

“closer consultation between the authorities involved on the implementation of the Dublin and Resettlement procedures and the number of persons to be transferred.”

In plain English, this is an unlawful restriction on the admission of persons who actually have a right to be transferred to the responsible EU member state in the context of family reunion under Dublin III. It means divided refugee families remain divided.

Dublin III sets out a clear framework for determining which EU member-state should have responsibility for examining an individual’s asylum claim. As described by the CJEU in Ghezelbash, it is based on “objective, fair criteria both for the Member States and for the persons concerned.” Rules of responsibility are designed to allocate responsibility to the relevant member-state according to the hierarchy in Chapter III; the sooner that happens, the sooner the relevant state can progress the examination of the person’s asylum claim without delay. Importantly, Dublin has a mechanism for uniting asylum-seekers with families in another EU member state under Articles 8 to 11. It doesn’t matter whether one of the family members is vulnerable. Respecting family life is a primary consideration of member-states when applying the regulation: see recital 14, read with Article 8 ECHR and Article 7 of the Charter on Fundamental Rights. The only exception to this is if there are concerns that reunion is either not in the best interests of the child (which fall to be assessed based on proper inquiries) or because of other concerns such as domestic violence.

I have no answer for her; asking her to believe in this system sounds rather hollow in the circumstances

The policy reasoning in support of family reunion is obvious. When families are together, they are happy. That is good for them; that is good for society. When families are divided, they are distressed. Children who are separated from family members and alone may be exposed to risks of exploitation, trafficking and other forms of abuse. Divided families are also more likely to need more support from the state because they cannot draw this from one another. There is simply no legal basis under Dublin III for Germany to lawfully impose an upper limit on the number of persons transferred under the regulation, the consequences of which are delays and divided families. On the contrary, the Dublin III framework positively encourages states to simplify and shorten the processes of transfer: Article 36(1)(b). This must be all the more so when talking about individuals for whom Germany accepts that it is the actual responsible member state for examining their asylum claims.

The human cost of separating families was evident to me in the two weeks I spent volunteering for the Athens Refugee Legal Support Project. One man I met at Katehaki told me that he was accepted for transfer to Germany nearly four months ago. His wife is in Germany and has recognised refugee status. He and three of his children are still in Greece. They could not cross the border together because they didn’t have enough money to pay the agent. The family has been separated now for more than a year. He has missed the birth of his youngest child (his wife was pregnant at the time she arrived in Germany). His wife has missed the milestone of their second youngest child walking and talking full sentences.

Every day, the legal volunteers who support our project get inquiries from desperate asylum-seekers anxious to find a way to expedite their reunion with family members. Many resort to extreme measures attempting to cross on their own illegally to Germany.

One client (who has been accepted for transfer by the Germans) has tried to cross the border unsuccessfully on three occasions in order to unite with her husband. She is afraid to do this again because she was attacked on the last occasion by a smuggler. The only advice I could give her was to wait her turn to be transferred. She asked me how I could ask her to have faith in a system that is already so burdened with delays and obstacles and an EU where some member-states have closed their borders and even the more emphatic states are starting to do the same. I have no answer for her; asking her to believe in this system sounds rather hollow in the circumstances.

Emma Fitzsimons, Garden Court Chambers

And yet, for all his struggles, here he was, in the Grecian heat, translating for the benefit of many others just like him

Warsan Shire’s poetry has been featured during the Mediterranean Crisis as a counter-narrative to the notion that Europe is under siege from economic migrants, rather than genuine refugees fleeing war, violence and persecution.

Those words took on new and profound meaning when I met with refugees in Athens. One of the most striking memories is meeting “M,” a 24-year-old Syrian Kurd who had been granted asylum in Greece. Now, he volunteered as an interpreter. Originally from Raqqa, he had been born into a middle class family; his father was an engineer, and his mother was a teacher. His siblings had all attended university, and qualified as a doctor, a lawyer and an engineer. When the war struck, he fled, initially to Iraq, and then Europe.  He was two years into his economics degree. I couldn’t help but draw parallels: here was a twenty-something would-be graduate, who was literally uprooted and his life forever changed by events he had absolutely no control over.

He estimates that the family spent around 50,000 EUR on smugglers; they used all their savings and sold their house. M’s parents and older siblings managed to get to Germany. M stayed in Greece with his 12-year old brother on Chios. His brother had applied for family reunification, and would likely be sent from Greece to Germany in the coming months. M could have escaped illegally, trying his luck at the border, or could have requested relocation. He decided he would wait to be sure that his brother would be safe.

After he was granted asylum, M took his younger brother on a holiday of sorts. The brothers stayed in a cheap hotel on the Greek islands. They swam in the sea; they hired bicycles and went out for dinner. M showed me photographs: finally safe, finally secure…relief and refuge.

I asked him how it had affected him. He was refreshingly honest. Before, he was a jealous, immature person. If he saw a friend with a new car, a designer watch or a decent job, he would enviously covet what he did not have. That had changed. He was still ambitious – even now, as a recognised refugee, he worked industriously as a teacher of math and Arabic at IOM schools and as a volunteer translator – but the jealousy had dissipated.

He was 24 years old, but looked older. He laughed when I told him I thought he looked somewhere in his 30s; he said it was the beard. In truth, it wasn’t; it was the weariness, the fatigue of war. I remember the worries of being 24; they were nothing like the stresses M had to endure.

He hoped to reunite with his parents once more in Germany. He accepted it could take some years. He was patient.  After his brother left, he would focus on starting over, yet again. And yet, for all his struggles, here he was, in the Grecian heat, translating for the benefit of many others just like him.

Miranda Butler, 3 Hare Court

The EU-Turkey Deal, which came into force on 20 March 2016, is a stunning case study in willful blindness. During my work for the Athens Refugee Legal Support Project I saw the effect of this fundamentally flawed deal at first hand. In return for a hefty dose of cash and some carefully worded assurances about accession to the European Union and visa liberalisation, Turkey has agreed to accept refugees who have fled from its borders into the European Union.

Every asylum seeker who has come to Greece from Turkey (which is most of the clients we meet) since the deal came into effect runs the risk of being detained and returned. The story that the EU has told itself is that Turkey is a ‘safe third country’ for refugees. Every day in Athens reminded me of how farcical this suggestion is.  With Erdogan using the EU-Turkey Deal as a bargaining chip to demand legitimacy for his authoritarian rule, returns to Turkey are occurring in a slow and erratic fashion.  Nevertheless, the Greek Asylum Service is acting as though the deal is fully operational. Refugees entering Europe illegally since 20 May 2016 are systematically incarcerated pending removal, which may itself never occur. Instead of reducing arrivals in Greece and providing a viable structure for managing this crisis, the EU-Turkey Deal is simply adding to the trauma and insecurity of asylum seekers in Greece.

Every asylum seeker spoke of border guards shooting at children crossing the border, appalling detention conditions and rife abuse at the hands of the Turkish authorities

During my time in Athens I represented “A”, a Syrian Kurd who had been refused protection in Greece because he could apparently be safely returned to Turkey. His single-page refusal letter from the Greek Asylum Service didn’t mention the situation of Kurds in Turkey or of his mistreatment at the hands of Turkish authorities. It also made no mention of the fact that A faces indefinite detention pending full implementation of the EU-Turkey Deal. Nevertheless, the full force of the Greek police has sprung into action to ensure A is detained and removed. In MSS v Belgium and Greece (App. No. 30696/09) the European Court of Human Rights held that detention conditions in Greece violated Article 3 ECHR but that hasn’t stopped the Greece police locking up A with no promises as to the length of his detention. As long as the EU continues to pretend that its deal with Turkey is viable, widespread detention, either in Greek jails or on the islands, will continue indefinitely.

This is not just an issue for vulnerable groups or minorities facing discrimination in Turkey. The Turkish government has systematically shown itself to have no respect for the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention. Every asylum seeker I spoke to who had travelled through Turkey had the same story of border guards shooting at children crossing the border, appalling detention conditions and rife abuse at the hands of the Turkish authorities. A had been detained with his family and small children in overcrowded conditions without food or water because they were found to be Kurds.  The ‘much better’ camp he was moved to in Istanbul didn’t have showers, but at least he wasn’t beaten and assaulted by the camp guards.

EU member states have closed their eyes to the situation for refugees in Turkey in order to stem the flow humanity over their borders. Time and again during my work for the Athens Refugee Legal Support Project I was forced to point out the blindingly obvious fact which the EU has yet to acknowledge; that this ‘safe’ country is anything but.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.